Monday, August 3, 2015

Desert Flight and Thunder

I'm pleased to report the club's Bonanza is flying again with a brand new alternator - thus removing the generator gremlin that was giving the A&P fits for the last few months. I had my husband fly the plane on two separate flights with long stops on each to verify everything would actually stay working before we took the plane across the Mojave desert to St. George, Utah last week.

Desert Flight

Edwards AFB - the compass rose is
in the lower right corner of this shot.
The plane kept working so we decided to go on the trip in the Bonanza. After careful weighing of people and cargo, calculation of weight and balance and fuel required we loaded up Friday before last and headed out to St. George. I flew the first leg. It was an uneventful trip to Bakersfield's Meadows Field airport. The plane (and pilot) performed flawlessly. We stayed overnight and picked up fuel to the tabs for the next morning's leg.

My husband flew the second leg to St. George and I handled the radio work. We were unexpectedly cleared to fly through R-2515, the restricted area over Edwards AFB. We got to fly over the dry lake bed near Edwards AFB and see the incredibly long runways and the largest compass rose I've ever seen marked in the lake bed. The best part was my teenage daughter - she actually enjoyed the trip and was having fun, looking around, asking questions, etc. That was a precious gift. We flew near Las Vegas and my daughter remarked the city seemed to be "missing the pizazz" from a distance. After another smooth trip we were in St. George.

We spent a week with my extended family exploring the stunning natural beauty St. George has to offer. Zion National Park, Snow Canyon, Dixie Rocks, Pioneer Park and, even better, we got to spend time together as a family. All of my brothers and sisters, my dad and I. Even more special, almost everyone had their whole family with them too. Cousins got to play together, grandpa got to take pictures and in-laws had fun. We hung out and swam and chatted and played games and drank and built lego airplanes with working propellers.

Chris and Katya after the flight
Of course, I had to take some family members for a flight! So I took my brother, Chris, and my sister-in-law, Katya out for flight. Chris is one that has been wanting to go flying with me for a long time "dying to go flying" is what he said. I told him not to say "dying!".  I decided to take them on a tour of some nearby amazing geology - the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon. My dad was worried, as usual, and asked me to send him my complete route, ETA for each leg, take off and landing times and who to call if we didn't come back!

We had an amazing flight over the Grand Canyon using the established VFR corridors. I flew southbound on the TUCKUP corridor and then north on the DRAGON corridor. The air was hazy in the canyon but the views were still incredible. Then I headed north to visit Bryce Canyon... it was great approaching the canyon from the south and viewing the Vermillion Cliffs and White Cliffs before the canyon itself. I circled over the canyon and headed back towards St. George. I didn't realize how close we were to Zion Park where we went hiking the day before and Chris and Katya caught some fantastic views of that canyon from the air. The flight was mostly smooth with Katya giggling in delight when we hit some turbulence over the canyon transitions. She said she loves roller coasters so I told her to come visit and I'd take her up for some more fun maneuvers - Lazy 8s would be really fun for her!

Desert Thunder

We were sitting in the
crosshairs, just north of the storm.
Saturday, everyone packs up and heads home. I have to get my husband to the Las Vegas airport by 9AM so he can catch a flight to Brazil. My daughter and I wanted to go home too. We figured out a way to fly all 3 of us plus luggage to Las Vegas that morning and pick up fuel there. However we were thwarted by early morning thunderstorms in the Las Vegas valley. So I ended up driving my husband to Las Vegas and then driving back to St. George so we could fly the plane back the following day. I went to the airport and had the plane filled with fuel and did a through pre-flight. It was an exhausting and frustrating day.

Both Katie and I were highly motivated to get back Sunday, with everyone gone, we wanted to return home. I monitored the forecasts closely and figured if we got up at 6AM we could be well out of the area before the storms forecast for 12 that day. I even woke up in the middle of the night to check the updated forecasts, just in case something changed.

I woke up before the alarm went off and checked the radar and found things changed while I slept. Now there was a line of thunderstorms between St. George and Las Vegas and it was moving north. Not good and not a darned thing I could do about it. I tried and failed to go to sleep for a bit longer. I finally gave up and spent more time looking at the weather radar and trying to determine the pattern for the storms. Would they keep building and streaming north or was this a line of storms that would pass? Weather on the other side of the storms was clear, weather further north was getting more active with storms - cutting off my "plan B" route.

Katie in front of the Bonanza - storms in the distance
With nothing to do but wait for the storms to pass we packed up, checked out of our hotel room and got breakfast at a nearby diner. As we ate the thunder and lightning passed overhead and we started to see blue sky in the distance. We waited and waited and I kept mentally pushing out our departure time from 7:00 AM to 8:00 AM to 9:00 AM to 10:00 AM. As the blue sky patch got bigger our spirits rose. It appeared we would be able to depart after all.

We headed to the airport and when we arrived we saw dark clouds all around - except our direction of flight. There was an occasional roll of thunder in the distance and mammatus clouds just east of our position. This is the type of weather that's almost never seen in the Bay Area. I remembered storms like this from growing up in the desert and on one hand I was thrilled to see the power, on the other hand I wanted to GO!

Mammatus clouds to the east. 
The winds were past and the ground was damp as we loaded up the plane and did another pre-flight. I was feeling very hopeful as I watched a couple planes take off and a couple more pilots getting their planes ready as well. It seems we all had the same idea, depart to the south.

After getting the plane ready I went back into the FBO to return the rental car and get a full weather briefing from a briefer. I didn't want my own wishful interpretation of the weather briefing I got electronically to color my judgement of the situation. The briefer barely mentioned the rain to the north of the airport. The heavy clouds we could see from the ground were just an "area of light precip" to his equipment. Everything looked great for a 10:00 AM departure and 3.5 hour flight back to RHV.

We used the bathroom one last time to make sure our bladder endurance would match our fuel endurance and headed out to the plane. The plane started up very strong and we taxied onto the runway for take off.

Lined up on the centerline I started the take off roll and the moment the ASI came alive a rear window popped open with a whooshing noise. "What's that?!" said my daughter as I put power to idle and put on the brakes smoothly to abort the take off and taxi clear of the runway to fix the problem. Katie secured the window again and I taxied back to the runway for a 2nd attempt. When I announced I was taking the runway again a Cessna in the pattern said, "Didn't you just take off a minute ago?" I laughed. If this was the worst of our troubles for the day I'd be thrilled.

We did a successful take off the second time and headed towards the clear blue sky to the south. The return trip was uneventful yet again with only some turbulence at the expected points crossing mountain passes. Less than 3.5 hours later we were on short final for 31L at RHV. Then the tower threw in the last bit of fun by switching me to 31R over the mall. I slipped over to 31R and landed well. We taxied back to parking and shut down.

The trip was done and I was extremely glad that I was able to share it with my daughter. She's going to be 17 this month, moving on to her own life in a year. I know these types of trips with her will be fewer and further between - precious moments indeed.

The clear path home. 


  1. Sounds like a great and memorable adventure. Wish we could have met in St George but the weather was just not very cooperative as we both discovered. Good stuff!

    1. It was a wonderful trip! But I still want to see your home patch and your plane... so I think this means I'll just have to come out again :) Maybe 3rd time will be the charm.